Saturday, 11 January 2014

Notes from Underground - Ivan Klima

Ivan Klíma, the prolific and irrepressible Czech novelist, essayist, and playwright, belongs to the remarkable cohort of Czech writers and artists who came to the world’s attention in the 1960s and went on to produce some of their best work in the following two decades, either in exile or in conditions of heavy repression at home. They included people of formidable talent but wildly different temperaments, among them Josef Škvorecký, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Ludvík Vaculík, Pavel Kohout, Václav Havel, Miloš Forman, and many others not as well known abroad but of no less importance in the revival of culture and politics they helped to bring about.

In retrospect, there is something improbable and even astonishing about the very existence of this group. Its appearance coincided with the brutal imposition on Czechoslovakia of Soviet communism, a system not known for encouraging free expression in the arts or anywhere else. Yet in the first two decades of communism, from 1948 to 1968, they managed to find their feet as artists and establish reputations at home, while mostly eluding the regime’s strenuous efforts to bind them to its cause. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, their work began to appear in print and on the stage and screen. The growing excitement they created eventually found political expression in the reforms of the Prague Spring of 1968, but by that summer, the pressure for change was beginning to undermine the authority of the Communist Party and the Soviets moved in with tanks and troops to stop it.

That invasion was the beginning of another two decades of repression, euphemistically referred to as “normalization.” Almost all of the main figures in the cultural renaissance of the 1960s were treated as nonpersons and their works were suppressed. Some of them, like Škvorecký, Kundera, Kohout, and Forman, emigrated to the West. Others, like Havel, Vaculík, and Klíma, remained behind and, despite constant harassment and, for some, imprisonment, found the inner strength to keep working. In doing so, they once again created an epicenter of change.

Ivan Klíma’s My Crazy Century is the most extensive autobiography of a member of this extraordinary generation yet to appear in English. (Havel’s presidential memoirs, To the Castle and Back, and his earlier book-length interview, Disturbing the Peace, cover only portions of his life.) First published in two volumes running to almost a thousand pages in Czech and somewhat abridged in Craig Cravens’s precise and elegant translation, the book chronicles Klíma’s life and times, from his first childhood memories (he was born in Prague in 1931) through his early adolescence in a Nazi concentration camp, his youthful struggles to become a writer in the Stalinist 1950s and the post-Stalinist 1960s, his work as an editor in several important literary magazines, his engagement in the Prague Spring, his sojourns abroad, in England, Israel, and the US, his voluntary return into the long night of normalization, and his activities as a dissident writer in the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the return of political freedom to Czechoslovakia.

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